Thursday, November 30, 2006


I'm currently slaving over a hot essay and so I'm not going to be elaborating on my travels for a while, I'll just leave my one person readership in suspense for a while.

In the meantime I thought I'd share something I noticed whilst idly wikisurfing away from what I was supposed to be looking at - I think it was Aristotle’s poetics, but I'm not sure; and how on earth I got from there to here is beyond me.

I ended up looking at the page on the FSB (Russian security services) and then on the page about the KGB (soviet security services), both of which have been in the papers a fair amount recently due to their alleged involvement in the death of some ex-KGB/FSB agent who turned conspiracy theorist and fled to the UK complaining of persecution and threats to his life. Although, in a country where you can hire a hitman for a few quid and a sandwich, you don't have to do anything particularly unpleasant to be at risk of being shot at. It's getting a lot of attention over here because it's dramatic, gruesome, and has all the fun of a conspiracy theory whilst pandering to the (possibly not unjustified) suspicions many have of the Russian government.

Anyway, Here are the logos of the FSB and the KGB

Interesting iconography. The shield, symbolising protection, the sword symbolising strength, might and the ever present threat of nastiness and the emblem of the government for which these powers are being exercised. One notices that the only substantial changes that they made to the logo with the collapse of the soviet union was to change the emblem on it from the Hammer n' Sickle five pointed star jobby of the Soviet Union to the eagle thingy of the Russian Federation and to make an attempt to conceal the sword, with the threat of violence it entails, behind the shield.

I've not got any real point to make or axe to grind here, I don't know enough about Russian politics and there is way to much wild speculation going on around this anyway. I'm just saying that really they could have chosen their iconography in a way that is slightly less easily interpreted to mean 'democracy = we are more sneaky about doing away with those we don't like'. I'm sure I'm not the only who has noticed this, and I expect that there are already plenty of venomous editorials using this iconography to indicate that we should nuke them, invade them, cuss their momma etc..

anyway. I've got work to do.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Part the Second

Well. The next part is here quicker than I expected, probably something to do with the fact that I’ve got a shiteload of work to do and no inclination/ability to do it. It’s a grey and cold day today in Canterbury and it’s nice to reminisce about the days when it was sunny, warm and I had someone to talk to.

I arrived at Heathrow airport at about 2am – my flight wasn’t until 8:30 but considering the scenes of chaos they’d been showing on the news for the preceeding few days I figured I’d rather be bored for a few hours than miss my flight. Thanks to this I was able to see the strange sight that is an airport with nobody in it, I’ve been in airports before for the usual reasons - to collect relatives, convert people to my cult and claim other people’s baggage. There is, however, something very weird about places designed to hold and allow for the movement of massive numbers of people, like airports; anyone who has walked around the north Greenwich peninsula* or stood in an empty football stadium will know what I mean – the places seem expectant, incomplete. The railing corrals and exit gates are meaningless without a full complement of bored and angry people standing in them, without them these places just look like strangely aseptic racehorse paddocks.

In the couple of hours that passed between my mother going home and the check in desks opening I amused myself by staring into space, humming songs, explaining to myself the wiring of the electronics in my fretted bass (it’s complicated) and watching the odd little refugee-camp style settlements people were setting up in the area of the check in desks. There was a Japanese family who were all asleep on the benches covered with those foil blankets they put on marathon runners, which looked very sci-fi, there was a bunch of American backpackers earnestly working their way through all the wine they had and telling stories about people driving on the left etc. There were various couples wandering around aimlessly including one middle aged couple who came over and asked me if they were at the American Airlines check-in area – “dis muhkan aerlynes?” (they were, it was written in big writing on just about every flat surface). I think that’s what they asked me, I was rather distracted by the appearance of the man: he was about 6’ with brown boots, grey slacks, a white shirt with that strange seam pattern that country singers wear and, get this, a black bootlace tie (with silver bull’s head on the top) and a big cowboy hat. I later learned, not hugely unexpectedly that they were bound for Fort Worth, TX. I hope that it was all an elaborate joke. Surely.

When the desks finally opened about 5 or 6am (I forget which) I was about 10th from the front. Not great, I hear you say, considering I’d got there at about 2am but I was fine with it as by the time I got my tickets and checked my bags the queue stretched through the three metal corral areas, snaked around the terminal and then disappeared out of the front door, I’m pretty sure that the people at the back are still waiting to this day, old and beardy.

Surprisingly, considering what the news had led me to suspect, there weren’t really any queues or problems at security – having never been in an airport before I can’t really comment on how it compared to normal running – I took off shoes, hoodie, belt, bag and was searched by a big Sikh bloke from security. It was all over nice and quickly and was much easier than I thought it’d be. Despite my long hair and beard I wasn’t poked with a cattle prod, or given any of the unpleasant internal examinations that my friends had been joking about since the 10th.

Airside lounges are boring tense places, like big trains stations but without the tramps and lingering smell of urine. I spent the whole time looking up at the boards every few seconds and worrying about things, there were some ‘cancelled’ notices on the board and some people shouting and raving at this. My flight was on time, which was a relief, and, after another rigorous search at the boarding area, I got to my seat somewhere in the arse end of the plane.

I was wondering, whilst waiting for takeoff, whether they intentionally design the plane so that the people with economy class tickets have to walk past all the upper class seats and envy all the smug rich people in their gigantic vibrating armchairs, four-poster beds, hot tubs etc before being stuffed into the hold. The takeoff was an interesting experience, I figured that I was probably going the fastest I’d ever moved in my life somewhere halfway along the runway and was enjoying the pinned-to-the-seat feeling of the G-force. The pilot was taking off into a pretty hefty headwind and so when we left the ground we did so with a lurch that made me feel like I was going to hurl (something I later found, to my relief, isn’t typical of takeoffs).

I’m not sure what more I can really say about the flight; between taking off and landing they aren’t the most interesting experiences. It was a cloudy day and I was a long way from the windows so I didn’t really have anything to look at. The fact that my little screen thingy was broken and that no electric devices were allowed in hand luggage meant that I had no idea what time it was, how long we’d been flying or anything like that. That, coupled with the fact that I was drifting in and out of sleep for the whole time caused me to have a very disorienting flight. About an hour from the end of the flight (I think) I was given a little green form to fill in, which asked me such useful questions as

Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?

You have no idea how hard it is to resist the urge to write “yes… I mean NO.. aw, damn, you got me.” But I was sensible and restrained all facetious and sarcastic impulses somewhere in the left thigh for the duration of the arrival process.

At immigration the passengers were divided into ‘US Citizens’ and ‘Foreigners’ The American line moved much faster and I felt a little imperial outrage - “I’m not Foreign. I’m British!” - at being stuck in the slow moving line. I was Processed though immigration quite quickly by an Arabic looking woman, which I found rather surprising considering the American paranoia about Arabs controlling ports. I was fingerprinted, which I found unnerving but I wasn’t in any mood to ask questions and so there is probably a study, in black and white, of my fingerprints somewhere in a federal database somewhere still. JFK airport was a strange contrast to Heathrow, it’s very small and tatty, the greying square ceiling panels and tire scuffed lino reminding me of my old school more than the airport I came from.

I collected my bags, still intact and in one piece and, after I’d gone through more searches in customs, wandered out into the arrivals lounge thingy having been awake for around 30 hours. I remember seeing Kristen’s sister first, before I’d even come through the door, sitting off to my right, then Kristen appearing in my view… and. Yeah. I’m not going to be able to write anything coherent about that…

Once that was all over with I was led around like a drugged up outpatient, with lots of attention being lavished on me, affectionate attention from Kirsten, and morbid curiosity, I think, from her sister. She took a couple of photos of me looking like a concussed tramp standing around in a grey car park gormlessly staring at a bottle of apple juice.

I think I’ll stop writing now, seeing as I’ve just written more on this in about two hours than I have in the last two weeks on my essay. I think it’d be better for everyone concerned if I didn’t write in quite so much detail for the rest of this saga.


* Loads of stuff built to accommodate the massive numbers of people that never bothered to go to the millennium dome

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Part the First

I suppose I should write about all this travelling I’ve been doing, not the half arsed account of the really quite mundane aspects of my summer, where all I really did was go to other parts of the UK and get drunk in them. The most interesting thing that happened this summer was a result of Kristen finishing her job in Long Island, NY and going off to start her new job on the other side of the country. Due to a shocking act of unprovoked generosity on the part of Kristen’s parents I was going to go with her on a road trip across the United States driving from New York to Berkeley, California, via South Carolina and her family home.

I suppose the best place to start this would be the 10th of august 2006. By this point I had got my head pretty much around the idea that I was actually going to America to see Kristen and, through much staring at maps, had almost got my head around the kind of distances we would be covering. Being from a small country I really had trouble with the idea of driving for an entire day and not reaching your destination – well actually that’s not true, but in the UK if you drove for a day your destination wouldn’t be anywhere interesting, it’d be just some small damp town in Scotland somewhere where the locals amuse themselves by drinking whiskey and shaving sheep. So, it is more accurate to say that I couldn’t get my head around the idea of driving for days and ending up somewhere where people have mains electricity and sewers. I tried to put the trip into some kind of perspective that I’d understand and so I worked out how far we were going to be travelling, roughly, and looked to see how far that would get me in Europe…

I found that it would in fact get me out of Europe altogether, and that it was pretty much like driving from here to Baghdad – although, despite the stories I’ve been told I was going to assume that the journey we were about to undertake was considerably safer than that one.

Anyway, back to the 10th of august. By this time I had sorted out what I needed to bring and got hold of an appropriate bag and suchlike logistical necessities, meaning that there wasn’t much else for me to do other than try and distract myself from the prospect of flying, which wasn’t one I relished. I’d never flown before so it was all a bit daunting. I wandered downstairs on the morning of the 10th (actually it was probably the afternoon – I’m not an early riser) and switched on the TV.

In case you don’t remember the story here it is

I spoke to some friends who had family going on holiday that weekend, camping out in the airport for days seemed be the norm and most of them lost a day or two from their holidays as a result of cancelled flights, which would have had devastatingly unsexy effects on my own trip.

Strangely, after the initial screaming heebie-jeebies, it wasn’t the fear of being exploded in midair by some shifty beardy geezer who I probably went to the same school as that particularly bothered me. This whole episode actually made me calmer than I was before about the prospect of flying. I don’t mean the sort of crazed calm one gets walking into exams, I mean that I was forced to either sit down and think rationally about the odds and probabilities of the whole thing or run away screaming and hide in my cupboard. I figured that getting in a plane was probably a few thousand times safer than getting a lift from Danny*.

So I did the sensible thing. I went out for a walk and watched the greasy brown sunset over London from the top of the hill – say what you like about pollution, it certainly does lead to some, erm, very unique sunsets – and later on decided to finally assuage my fears in the normal manner, which is going out, getting my wobbly boots on, and making really crass and tasteless jokes about it with my friends as if I’m not in the slightest bit bothered. I find that I can often convince myself that way.


So. There you go. Episode one. I’ll write up the rest of it later, well I’ve written most of it already, but It’ll probably require proofreading and rewriting like this one did and I need to get back to work.


*No offence Danny, it’s just that you drive like Biggles.